Australia’s bats are nature’s true superheroes! Imagine being able to acrobatically zoom around at 50km/h, in the pitch dark, dodging all obstacles in your way! That in itself is enough to deserve your vote for Australian Mammal of the Year!
In fact, bats are the only mammals capable of true flight. Their wings are modified hands, with the same bones and joints as in our arms and hands, but with greatly elongated fingers and a fine membrane joining them together and to the body and legs. The scientific name for bats is Chiroptera which simply means “hand wing” – a perfect description.
Some bats are tiny. One of the smallest is the little forest bat weighing just 4g (the weight of a 10c coin). In contrast, the majestic grey-headed flying fox weighs up to 1kg. Some have simple faces, while others look a bit more bizarre, such as the ghost bat with its impressive, convoluted noseleaf.
Bats are not blind (contrary to the old saying). In fact, flying foxes and fruit bats have excellent night vision, using both sight and an acute sense of smell to find their next meal of fruit or nectar. These bats are vital in our ecosystems as pollinators and seed dispersers.
The smaller bats have eyes, too, but also use sound to “see” their environment. They emit pulses of high frequency sound, getting a clear picture of their surroundings from the returning echoes, including the insects they catch. Humans can only hear up to about 15kHz, while many bats typically call up to 70kHz, with some like the orange leaf-nosed bat calling up to an amazing 120kHz. In contrast, the white-striped freetail bat calls within our hearing range – it’s a joy to hear their clink-clink sound as they fly across our night sky.
Smaller bats feed on a range of nocturnal flying insects, such as moths and beetles, including some serious agricultural pests. And they eat them in prodigious amounts – up to half their body weight in a night. The little forest bat meanwhile consumes loads of mosquitoes – a true superhero quality!
Poll for your favourite bat here.
Read about the Beloved Burrowers and vote for them here.
Other species have very specialised diets. The golden-tipped bat hovers in front of spider webs, delicately picking out the spiders, while the large-footed myotis skims across the surface of water, using their big feet to rake up aquatic insects and catch small fish.
Bats are amazing mums. Their young are quite large when born, up to a third of the mother’s body weight – the equivalent of a woman giving birth to a 5-year-old! The mothers’ milk is very rich and the young grow quickly. For example, southern bent-wing bats suckle their young for 6-8 weeks, by which time the young are as big as the mothers. Females breed throughout their life, which for southern bent-wing bats can be up to 22 years, giving birth to a single young’un each year.
Bats experience many of the same threats as other mammals: habitat loss and fragmentation, roost disturbance, introduced predators, extreme heat events (particularly impacting flying-foxes) and climate change. While some species remain relatively common and widespread, others are under serious threat, including the critically endangered southern bent-wing bat, the endangered spectacled flying fox, and the vulnerable grey-headed flying fox and ghost bat. Urgent action is needed to arrest the decline of these species to save them from extinction.
So let’s all lift the profile of bats! Bats unfortunately get the worst rap of any Australian mammal, and can be demonised (think of Dracula, disease risks, or myths like bats getting caught in your hair). Let’s turn this around! Let’s show the world that our bats are amazing animals deserving of our awe and respect. Let’s make one of our bats the inaugural Australian Mammal of the Year!
The nominees for best bat are:
Grey-headed flying-fox (Pteropus policephalus), eastern states
Also known as “fruit bats” as they are affectionately known, are Australia’s largest flying mammal. They are highly social and intelligent creatures, roosting in congregations known as “camps” during the day, which typically contain hundreds or thousands of bats at a single time.
Golden-tipped bat (Phoniscus papuensis), east coast of Australia
These bats roost in disused hanging bird nests in the rainforests in which they live. They feed almost entirely on orb-weaving spiders.
Large-footed myotis (Myotis macropus), north and east coast of Australia
Also known as the southern myotis, this species feeds on aquatic insects and small fish by flying close to the surface of the water and raking it with the curved claws on their large feet.
Ghost bat (Macroderma gigas), northern Australia
They prey on large insects, frogs, lizards, birds and small mammals – including other bats! Their name comes from their pale coloured wing membrane and bare skin, and their light or dark grey fur over the back that is paler at the front.
Little forest bat (Vespadelus vulturnus), south-eastern Australia
These tiny microbats weigh only 4 grams, but they’re agile flyers able to catch their small, flying insect prey in the air and eat as they fly.
Spectacled flying-fox (Pteropus conspicillatus), northern QLD
They can skim over the surface of water to drink from it, though that means that they are sometimes eaten by crocodiles.
Orange leaf-nosed bat (Rhinonicteris aurantia), far northern and northwestern Australia
These bats definitely live up to their name, with an amazing orange fur colouration. They roost in very hot and humid caves or mine – up to 32oC and close to 100% humidity!
Eastern-tube nosed bat (Nyctimene robinsoni), north-eastern Australia
They can move their nostrils in different directions (just like a kangaroo can move its ears in different directions) to pick up the scent of their next fruit meal. Their extended nostrils also help stop the juice from fruits they are munching going up their nose!
Bare-backed fruit bat (Dobsonia magna), northern QLD
Their wings are attached to the middle of their backs, rather than the sides of their bodies and this is what makes them look like they have no hair on their back (hence the name).
Southern-bent wing bat (Miniopterus orianae bassanii), southwestern VIC and southeastern SA
At night, mothers leave their pups clustered on the cave ceiling in a ‘creche’ while they go out to hunt for moths, including agricultural pests, and can fly more than 70 kilometres in just a few hours.
Long-tongued nectar bat (Macroglossus minimus), northern Australia
Like the name suggests, these bats have long tongues that they use when foraging. Landing on or near a flower they extract nectar or pollen from it with the help of their long tongue.
Polling to determine the finalists of Australian Mammal of the Year is now closed. The Top Ten finalists will be announced on Monday 15 August and final voting for the Mammal of the Year will begin!
Dr Lindy Lumsden is a Principal Research Scientist and Science Leader at the Arthur Rylah Institute, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, Victoria. She has been conducting ecological research on bats for over 40 years and is passionate about changing people’s attitudes to these fascinating, yet often misunderstood mammals.
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